Like many cigar smokers, I imagine, I owe a singular debt to Montecristo. It was the first real, by which I mean handmade, cigar that I smoked. Moreover, it was a Montecristo No 4 (£234, box of 25), which, at a whisker over five inches in length and with a ring gauge of 42 points, is the world’s bestselling handmade Havana. It is an accessible cigar: it’s widely available, not daunting in terms of size and has a pleasant flavour that is tangy enough to be interesting without pole-axing the neophyte.
Around 20 years ago, it was certainly enough to kindle my affection for cigars, inculcated in me by my wife’s stepfather, a man who understands the most important things in life: good burgundy, Havana cigars, vintage cars and so on. And along with the shortish stick of tobacco bearing the fleur-de-lys-decorated band, he passed on the story of how, 20 years earlier, he had been impressed by a friend who always kept a box of Montecristo As in his car.
So gargantuan is the A that when sold individually it comes in its own small coffin. When introduced at the beginning of the 1970s, this 91/4 inch Gran Corona was hailed by The Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most expensive cigar. In fact, a box of 25 of these behemoths must have been worth rather more than some of the cars around at the time.
The Monte A (£951, box of 25) was and still is the largest production cigar made in Cuba (its only equal in terms of dimension is the Sancho Panza Sanchos, which has its own story). Its launch marked the zenith of the reputation of a brand that was invented 36 years earlier in 1935. Named after the famous Dumas novel, at the time much was made of the fact that the ligero leaf for the filler was matured in special cedar chests. It rapidly gained in popularity and even before the revolution it was the top-selling Havana.
The reason for its dramatic dominance of the market remains a mystery. Maybe those early Montecristos were truly nonpareils. Maybe they were easy to remember as the obscure nomenclature was replaced with a simple numbering system that until the late 1960s counted only five sizes numbered one to five.
However, by the time I was getting started on them, Montecristos were beginning to lose their lustre. The marque had slipped from its top slot as the favoured smoke of plutocrats. During the 1970s and 1980s the white and gold band of Davidoff had replaced the brown and white of the Montecristo. And by the time the thrice-fermented Cohiba hit the market, the Montecristo was relegated to the status of a dependable, rather than an exciting, cigar.
In 1980 an attempt was made to launch numbers six and seven, but they flopped. It hardly mattered, however, for as far as Cuba was concerned Montecristo was the gift that kept on giving. Having once been the cynosure of cigars, the thoroughbred Montecristo had become the workhorse of the industry – made in huge quantities and available in every halfway decent tobacconist (bar those in the US). By the end of the 20th century, it accounted for a massive 22 per cent of all cigars exported from Havana.
Unsurprisingly, doubts about quality began to surface. Historically linked with the H Upmann factory (where Montecristo cigars are still made today, although the factory has now moved), production continued on this site despite the quantities being simply too great for a single factory to handle. Yet as the brand’s reputation troughed, signs of its rebirth were beginning to be seen.
At the turn of the century, three sets of strictly limited-edition Cuban cigars in ceramic jars were made – and one was a Montecristo Robusto. The robusto was beginning to become fashionable, and Montecristo’s offering, which I recall being delicious, seemed to suggest that we could expect more from the brand.
I waited. But in Cuba nothing happens in a hurry and, with the exception of a couple of rather forgettable limited editions, it was not until the middle of the decade that real change began to take place, with the launch of the Edmundo (£397, box of 25). In a dark, oily wrapper, with a prescient ring gauge of 52 and at 51/3 inches in length, this, for the first time in 25 years, was a Montecristo that was a leader rather than a follower. It was fatter than the standard robusto, and hailed as more “confident” in flavour than the traditional numbers one to five. It was an altogether more serious proposition, in size, flavour and appearance. Even the packaging was different, sold in new-style aluminium tubes.
At first, I was ambivalent about the Edmundo. For a start, the initial batch was, in my opinion, released a little too early and its youth, increased strength, and larger size made me wary of it. It was, I thought, not to be trifled with.
But by now the torcedores of Havana were on a roll (pun intended). Another limited edition was followed in short order by the Petit Edmundo (£304, box of 25). This helped to establish a context for what I was now seeing as the “new” Montecristo. The Petit Edmundo gave a glimpse of the future: short and stout, it was perfect for the smoking ban introduced soon after its launch. I prefer it to its larger sibling; it is full in flavour but less of a bruiser, and at almost an inch shorter than the Edmundo it is, to my taste, a better match of blend and size.
Edward Sahakian, proprietor of Davidoff of London, recalls the excitement surrounding the arrival of the Edmundos. “Initially, everyone was tasting them,” he says. “A number of Cohiba smokers who felt the Robusto a bit too overwhelming in both price and flavour took to the the Petit Edmundo as a welcome substitute. It has a rich but not overpowering flavour. With this, Montecristo started a new era.”
But the real sign that Montecristo was forcing its way back into the premier league came in 2007, with the arrival of a new limited-edition Montecristo No 4 (about £650, box of 20, now hard to find); part of the elite Reserva series.
As if to emphasise its renaissance, a new line called Open appeared, comprising four sizes (from £159, box of 20) in a slightly milder blend than the originals. But the most intriguing launch so far has been the Montecristo Edición Limitada Sublimes (£249, box of 10). Cigar-lovers will know that the Cohiba Sublimes of 2004 are believed by many as the finest Cohibas ever launched, so launching a Montecristo of the same name and size (around six and a half inches with a hefty 54-point ring gauge) certainly raised expectations. The only cavil I had was that, once again, this cigar was released too early, but it is now smoking as well as its name suggests. It is full flavoured, slightly sweetish, with a surprising delicacy. I think it’s just beginning to come into its own and will only improve over the next five years.
Interestingly, this summer saw the arrival of a new limited-edition Montecristo – the Grand Edmundo (£204, box of 10). What makes the Grand Edmundo so intriguing is that it shares the exact same dimensions as the Cohiba Siglo VI, which is widely held to be the new benchmark Cohiba. As Oscar Wilde might have said had he been a cigar rather than a cigarette smoker, “To launch one Montecristo that copies a Cohiba may be coincidental, but to launch two…”